The draft riots of 1863 turned a great city into a living hell.
"We shall have trouble before we are through,” George Templeton Strong, a wealthy New Yorker and staunch friend of Lincoln, warned in his diary one July morning in 1863. Yet the first nationwide military draft, authorized by Congress on March 3 to fill the critically depleted ranks of the Union Army, began in a festive mood.
At 9 A.M. on Saturday, July 11, the provost marshal of the Ninth Congressional District, first in the city to start its drawing, ascended the platform in his office at 46th Street and Third Avenue. A revolving drum with thousands of tightly rolled slips of paper was spun. The marshal’s blindfolded assistant drew the first name—William Jones. The crowd laughed, and someone shouted, “Poor Jones!” Each succeeding name was greeted with similar banter, that of a prominent alderman, undoubtedly expected to buy his way out of the draft under the much-disputed $300 exemption payment, eliciting cries of “There’s three hundred for sure!”
Such “good feeling” was the rule of the day, reported the New York Tribune. There was no premonition of disaster; only slightly strengthened police patrols at the draft offices. Yet by Monday morning, New York would be torn by the bloodiest riot in its history and would stand on the brink of revolution.
The portents had been gathering for months. New York’s Copperhead press—the Day Book, Express, Freeman’s Journal, and Daily News among others—had been attacking the draft furiously. Governor Horatio Seymour himself abetted the attack by insisting the draft was unconstitutional. A Democrat elected in 1862, he had kept faith with the Union by rushing seventeen regiments of militia to Gettysburg. But his position was equivocal, and in repeatedly demanding that the draft be stopped, he came disturbingly close to the Copperhead line.
There was nothing equivocal, however, about Fernando Wood, former mayor and now a congressman. Elected to Congress in 1863, Wood seized on the draft as the perfect issue to rouse his supporters, mainly Irish immigrants from the Bowery, the docks, and the Five Points tenements. Wood had no trouble inciting great segments of the city’s workers. They were already embittered by the two controversial exemption clauses in the Conscription Act. One clause allowed any drafted man to gain release by hiring a suitable substitute. The other allowed any draftee to buy his way out of the Army by paying $300 to the government.
Either escape was far beyond the reach of the average workingman. Even in the inflationary cycle of 1863, he would be lucky to earn $500 a year, making the $300 exemption virtually impossible, the hired substitute a dream. Quite logically, the draft made this “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” One workingman’s letter to the New York Times asserted”… that $300 has made us nobodies, vagabonds and cast-outs of society. … We are the poor rabble and the rich rabble is our enemy by this law. …”
The $300 exemption gave Lincoln weeks of agonizing indecision. Finally he drew up a memorandum, summing up the arguments in its favor. Quite clearly his own arguments failed to satisfy him, and in the end he buried the memorandum in his file. The controversial exemption clause was allowed to stand, a fateful monument to political expediency.
The provost marshal’s decision to start the drawing in New York on a Saturday was clearly foolhardy. Thousands of workers, with a whole Sunday ahead of them to churn up their bitterness in every corner bar, woke up to find their names listed in the papers. What had seemed only an ominous threat—that very day Governor Seymour had promised to stop the draft by sending his adjutant general to Washington—now became harsh reality.
All that Sunday afternoon New York’s East Side was crowded with angry, cursing men. First and Second Avenue bars were jammed. The volunteer fire companies, often unofficial headquarters for the local Democratic machine, were leading centers of unrest. Some companies raised pools to buy exemption for drafted members. Others, like Fire Engine Company No. 33 on 58th Street near Broadway, proudly called “The Roughs,” promised more direct action, telling a Herald reporter that "… if Lincoln attempts to enforce the draft in New York in violation of state authority, there will be black eyes and bloody noses.”
Sam Galligan, known as “The Bully Boy” and described by the Times as “a well-known wire-puller of the Ward,” went from bar to bar, organizing his cronies. The employees of a contracting firm agreed to meet en masse in an empty lot near Central Park early Monday morning. The stevedores decided to join them. Southern agents with ready cash, pro-Administration papers claimed later, helped fan the revolt. John Andrews, an aristocratic-looking Virginian, rode a plodding gray mare up and down the East Side streets, corralling friends and giving impromptu addresses at busy corners.
At 10 A.M. on Monday, July 13, Captain Charles Jenkins, the provost marshal, reopened the draft. But there was no hilarity then, only catcalls and hisses as each name was drawn.
Jenkins had drawn about seventy names when a pistol was fired outside his window. Paving stones and brickbats were thrown into the room. The crowd inside grabbed tables and chairs and hurled them at the draft officers. The small police detail barely managed to help Jenkins and his aides escape through the back door. Then the police were overwhelmed. Reported the Tribune: “They were knocked down, were beaten with fists, with clubs, with stones …" Cans of kerosene were splashed across the floor. A few minutes later the building was in flames, the fire spreading to adjoining buildings on Third Avenue whose upper floors were occupied by women and children.
The clanging fire bell on 51st Street brought Fire Chief John Decker and two loyal engine companies to the scene. They unrolled their hoses, but the howling mob fought them off, threatening to kill them. Decker pleaded with the mob to let him save the rest of the street. But it was more than an hour, and most of the houses were in ruins, before he could use his hoses.
Since ten o’clock emergency messages had been flooding Metropolitan Police Headquarters on Mulberry Street, at the lower end of the city. The police telegraph system connected Superintendent John Kennedy simultaneously with all 32 precincts, and he immediately summoned all reserve platoons to duty. But the mob had cut down the telegraph poles, rendering twelve miles of wire useless and putting Kennedy out of touch with most of the upper half of the city. He decided to drive uptown in his carriage to investigate.
Kennedy had no idea of the extent of the riot until he found himself in the middle of the mob. A handsome, powerfully built man of sixty, he was immediately recognized, attacked, and knocked to the ground. “The mob nearly killed him,” the Tribune reported. “They beat him, dragged him through the streets by his head, pitched him into a horsepond, rolled him into mud-gutters, dragged him through piles of filth indescribable.” Kennedy saved himself only by shouting to a prominent member of the community, John Eagen, on the fringe of the mob. Eagen managed to fight off the attackers while Kennedy raced across a vacant lot to high ground. Here he was cornered and beaten again. By the time a small squad of police arrived, the mob must have thought Kennedy dead. His body was placed on a passing wagon and taken to police headquarters, where he remained under medical care for the rest of the week.
The senior member of the Police Board, Thomas Acton, now took command, conferring immediately with Mayor George Opdyke at City Hall. The defense of the city actually rested in Acton’s hands since the state administration in 1857 had vested all power in the Metropolitan Police Board. This turned out well for the city. A police force packed with Fernando Wood appointments might have offered only token resistance to the mob.
With only 800 men on duty that day against a mob that would soon number 50,000, Acton’s strategy was to concentrate his force at police headquarters and City Hall to protect the banks, federal installations, major hotels, and stores in the lower half of the city. The futility of limited resistance was already being demonstrated at Third Avenue and 43rd Street, where 44 policemen under Sergeant McCredie of the fifteenth precinct clashed with the mob. Only 5 of the 44 came through unwounded. One officer, after being beaten almost to death with crowbars, was saved by John Eagen’s wife, who flung her body on the policeman’s to shield him from the mob.
A fifty-man company of the Army’s Invalid Corps (wounded veterans now on guard duty, rushed into action because of the shortage of troops) was cut to pieces even more brutally. Marched up Third Avenue, they fired directly into the mob; no one seemed to know whether they used bullets or blank cartridges. Then, fighting with bayonets, the soldiers were surrounded and cut off by hundreds of rioters. A few soldiers tried to flee for their lives, “hunted like dogs,” reported the Times. One was left dead in the gutter on 41st Street. Another fled to the high rocks near 42nd Street, where he was beaten “almost to a jelly,” said the Tribune, and tossed over a precipice.
By noon the city was virtually in the hands of the mob. Major General John Wool, commander of the Department of the East, and Brigadier General Harvey Brown, who commanded federal troops in the city, sent desperate messages for help to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Governor’s Island, and federal forts as far away as Massachusetts. The few hundred federal troops in the city had to be stationed at vital points like the arsenal on Elm Street. By midnight the first uniformed reinforcements had arrived: several companies of marines with howitzers and cannon, 300 sailors from the Brooklyn Navy Yard with revolvers and cutlasses, and police reserves from Brooklyn. By early Tuesday morning there were still only a thousand federal troops in the city. Since at least half had to guard federal installations in the lower city, General Brown, who cooperated closely with Acton, could keep only a small force of soldiers at police headquarters to join the police in flying squads against the rioters uptown.
The anger of the mob was now turned in a new direction. Under John Andrews’ leadership, they were attacking not only the draft but all symbols of authority and wealth. They swarmed down Lexington Avenue, screaming “Down with the rich!” At 46th Street they plundered three fine homes, then burned them to the ground.
Another group of rioters attacked the provost marshal’s office at 29th Street and Broadway, first plundering an expensive jewelry store on the main floor. Another mob attacked the armory at Second Avenue and 21st Street, used by the government for the manufacture of rifles. The 35-man Broadway squad fought off the mob for an hour, but when the rioters started to set fire to the building, Acton ordered it abandoned. The police managed to escape by squeezing through a tiny hole in the rear wall and fleeing to the eighteenth precinct police station, where they stripped off their uniforms. The station was later burned to the ground.
The Negro population, numbering less than 15,000, suffered most of all. No Negro dared appear on the street. “Small mobs are chasing isolated Negroes as hounds would chase a fox,” Major Edward S. Sanford of the U.S. Military Telegraph Service wired Secretary of War Stanton. Many hotels, fearful of being attacked, displayed large signs: “No Niggers in back!” Abraham Franklin, who supported himself and his mother as a coachman, managed to get to his mother’s house on Seventh Avenue to make sure she was safe. They talked a few minutes, then decided to pray together. A group of rioters burst open the door, beat Franklin, and hanged him before his mother’s eyes.
Peter Heuston, a 63-year-old Mohawk Indian and army veteran of the Mexican War, was mistaken for a Negro and beaten to death near his home on Roosevelt Street, leaving an orphaned daughter of eight.
The mob’s savagery to the Negro sprang from complex motivations—economic, social, and religious. Most of its members were Irish. Comprising over half the city’s foreign-born population of 400,000, out of a total of about 814,000, the Irish were the main source of cheap labor, virtually its peon class. Desperately poor and lacking real roots in the community, they had the most to lose from the draft. Further, they were bitterly afraid that even cheaper Negro labor would flood the North if slavery ceased to exist.
All the frustrations and prejudices the Irish had suffered were brought to a boiling point by the draft. At pitiful wages they had slaved on the railroads and canals, had been herded into the most menial jobs as carters and stevedores. Many newspaper ads repeated the popular prejudice: “No Irish need apply.” An Irish domestic worker was lucky to earn seven dollars a month. Their crumbling frame tenements in areas like the Five Points were the worst slums in the city. Already pressed to the wall, the Irish could logically view the draft as the final instrument of oppression by the rich. One worker wrote the Times: “We love our wives and children more than the rich because we got not much besides them; and we will not go to leave them at home for to starve …”
In an objective assessment of the Irish role in the riots, Harper’s Weekly later pleaded that it “be remembered … that in many wards of the city the Irish were during the late riot staunch friends of law and order …” Many loyal fire companies were made up of Irishmen. Irish priests opposed the rioters at every step, one risking his life to succor Colonel Henry O’Brien as he was being beaten to death, another persuading a mob not to burn Columbia College at 49th Street and Madison Avenue. Most important of all, a large segment of the Metropolitan Police were Irishmen who fought the mob with a bravery and devotion probably unequaled in police history.
In the war itself, four New York Irish regiments made impressive records. A former Irish editor, Brigadier General Francis Thomas Meagher, commanded the Irish Brigade. The Irish distinguished themselves at Antietam and Fredericksburg, losing 471 wounded and dead in the latter battle. Of 144,000 Irishmen in the Union Army, over 51,000 were from New York.
But on that Monday afternoon, unfortunately, their pent-up hatred of the Negro exploded in its most savage form. Its object was the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, a four-story building on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, where 233 children were housed.
“Clamoring around the house like demons,” as the Tribune described it, the mob burst the door with axes. The children knelt with Superintendent William E. Davis to pray. Then a long line of frightened boys and girls, two of them infants carried in teachers’ arms, followed Davis out the rear door.
The mob surged through the building, stripping it bare. Hundreds of beds were carried from the dormitory wing. Women and boys grabbed them and carted them down the avenue—a strange procession that one reporter estimated ran for ten blocks. Carpets, desks, chairs, pictures, books, even the orphans’ clothes, were tossed out the windows to the waiting plunderers. Then the handsome building was set on fire.
Fire Chief Decker and two engine companies responded to the call, Decker racing alone into the building, struggling to extinguish the brands tossed by the mob. But rioters followed him, setting new fires. Decker went back, accompanied by six of his men, and put them out again.
This time two dozen rioters grabbed him and would have beaten him to death had not ten firemen rushed to his rescue and warned that their chief would be taken only over their dead bodies. Frustrated, the mob turned suddenly on the Negro children, who huddled in a circle on the corner watching their home go up in flames.
Twenty children were cut off from the main group. “There is little doubt that many and perhaps all of these helpless children would have been murdered in cold blood,” reported the Times. But a young Irishman on the edge of the crowd, Paddy McCaffrey, aided by two drivers from the 42nd Street cross-town bus line and members of Engine Company No. 18, surrounded the children and fought off the mob. While rioters pelted them with stones, they managed to get the children to the thirty-fifth precinct station house. An hour later the orphan asylum was a mess of charred rubble.
Paddy McCaffrey’s heroism was one more contradiction of the assumption that all Irishmen supported the rioters.
At the height of the riot that Monday evening, Commissioner Acton got word that the mob was marching on City Hall and police headquarters. Acton decided it was time for the first counteroffensive. He assigned 200 men to Inspector Dan Carpenter, “the Metropolitan war horse of grizzled locks and martial figure,” as one paper described him. Carpenter, promising “to win this fight or never come back alive,” led his main force up Broadway with two parallel columns of fifty men ready to strike from the side streets. The police caught the mob by surprise. “Men fell by the dozens under the sturdy blows of the police who had orders to ‘take no prisoners,’” the Times reported. “… Broadway looked like a battleground thickly strewn with prostrate forms.”
Another mob, meanwhile, had invaded the Tribune building across the park from City Hall. Acton had decided to make his second major attack. He combined a force of almost fifty men at City Hall with the first-precinct reserves and rushed them to the Tribune building. Then he ordered Carpenter’s men to catch the rioters from the rear.
“We struck them like a thunder-bolt,” one officer recalled later. The floors were heaped with bleeding rioters. Hundreds, fleeing down side streets, were caught by Carpenter. “It was a striking illustration of the cowardice of the mob when confronted by a handful of determined officers of the law,” the Times exulted the next morning. More important, it had not only saved the Tribune, Times, and Post buildings from destruction but demonstrated that the police still controlled the lower city.
That night New York was in turmoil. A Negro cartman, trying to escape under cover of darkness, was caught by a gang of of men and boys and hanged from one of the fine spreading chestnut trees on Clarkson Street. Only a few feet from the consecrated ground of St. John’s Cemetery, they built a fire under him, dancing wildly around the roasting flesh.
Shortly after midnight, a deluge of rain drove the rioters temporarily from the streets. At 1:15 A.M. the indefatigable Inspector Carpenter set out with a small force to cut down the body of the Negro cartman. Then Acton received a message, warning of a new attack on police headquarters. Carpenter had to bring back his men.
Tuesday was hot and muggy; a heavy pall of black smoke rose from innumerable fires hanging over the city. Mobs filled the streets at dawn “increasing in power and audacity,” noted Ellen Leonard, a young New Englander staying at her brother’s house on Nineteenth Street.
News from Gettysburg sharpened the tension. Decisively beaten in the three-day battle there, General Robert E. Lee had withdrawn his battered army and on the night of July 13 had crossed the Potomac and gained comparative safety in Virginia. Northern jubilation over the victory was sharply tempered by the realization that Lee’s army had, after all, escaped destruction, and when the government ordered New York National Guard regiments returned from Pennsylvania to New York City to deal with the riot it was commonly assumed that this played directly into Lee’s hands. Actually, the escape had already taken place; the National Guard regiments had seen little combat service in the Gettysburg campaign, and their departure did not deprive the Union commander, General George G. Meade, of any essential support once the Confederates had gone south of the Potomac. Nevertheless, the fact that Union troops had to be sent to New York at a time when a dangerous Confederate army still needed attention was profoundly dismaying, and the Times, not surprisingly, declared editorially that the New York rioters were “the left wing of Lee’s army.”
Although some reporters considered the mob a directionless rabble, others noted disturbing signs of organization—the well-constructed barricades, for example, on First Avenue between Eleventh and Fourteenth streets, used as fortress and virtual assembly-ground by the mob.
John Andrews was still supplying leadership on the East Side. Ellen Leonard saw him on horseback that morning, noting that “crowds quickly gathered around him … from all the neighboring alleys and greeted him with shouts and cheers.” The Times added, “We have not a doubt there are other men, agents direct from Richmond, now in the city …” When the police later tried to identify one of the most daring mob leaders killed on Second Avenue, and found under his grimy work clothes a handsome vest and an expensive linen shirt, the suspicions seemed justified.
Pitched battles, even more furious than Monday’s, raged all day. A company of soldiers faced one mob at point-blank range on Delancey Street, fought them off, and was attacked again on Pitt Street. A marine detachment was forced to retreat before another mob on Grand Street. Almost 5,000 rioters invaded the Union Steam Works at 22nd Street and Second Avenue, where thousands of government carbines were stored. A strong force of police under Inspector George Dilks stormed the building, piled the carbines on wagons, and marched quickly downtown to relieve Mayor Opdyke’s house, which was under attack. Meanwhile the mob retook the Steam Works, and Dilks had to return and fight for it again, floor by floor.
Inspector Carpenter with 300 police battled a mob estimated at 10,000 on Second Avenue. In phalanx formation the police hammered their way through the rioters. But at 34th Street they stepped into a trap. Hundreds of rioters, placed on rooftops and in windows, picked off the police with guns and bricks. Colonel Henry O’Brien offered to rush a detachment of his Eleventh New York Volunteers, a new regiment still being organized, to clear the avenue with two fieldpieces while Carpenter’s men methodically routed the rioters from each building.
Colonel O’Brien, who lived on Second Avenue near 35th Street, soon paid for his daring. An Irishman himself, he foolishly assumed that his name would protect him from retribution and returned home alone a few hours later, stopping at a neighborhood drugstore. A crowd quickly gathered outside the store. O’Brien stepped out boldly, sword in one hand, pistol in the other. A woman hurled a brick, he fired, and then the mob swallowed him up, beating him, the Tribune reported, with “every club that could be brought to bear, every kick or stone that could be thrown …” He was dragged, still breathing, over the rough cobblestones to his own courtyard, where for hours women and boys, as well as men, danced around the body. They paused only to allow a priest to administer the last rites. When a neighboring druggist offered the dying man a glass of water, his store was sacked.
That same morning Governor Seymour arrived from Long Branch, New Jersey. From City Hall, after conferring with Opdyke, he issued a strong proclamation calling for the restoration of law and order. Then a large crowd gathered in the park, and Seymour went to the steps of City Hall to address them—a speech that has remained the most controversial act of his controversial career.
“Let me assure you that I am your friend,” he told his listeners. “You have been my friends. And now I assure you, my fellow citizens, that I am here to show you a test of my friendship. I wish to inform you that I have sent my Adjutant General to Washington to confer with the authorities there and to have this draft suspended and stopped …”
Seymour’s supporters have always claimed his first responsibility was to calm the city—that nothing more was implied in his words. But Administration papers bristled at this offer of “friendship” and obvious appeasement of the rioters. “He was proclaiming with all the authority attaching to his character and official position,” stated the Times, “that mob law ought under certain circumstances to over-ride that of Congress. …”
Mayor Opdyke now was harassed both by Seymour and the Peace Democrats who controlled his own Board of Aldermen and City Council. While Seymour was speaking, the aldermen and council were preparing a $2,500,000 Conscription Exemption Bond bill which would allow the city to give $300 to each drafted man to buy his way out of the service. They passed the bill on Wednesday, and Opdyke immediately vetoed it, stating, “I felt it would be purchasing the peace of the city too dearly to thus bow to dictation of the mob. …”
The real struggle was at the barricades on Eighth Avenue between 37th and 43rd streets and on First Avenue between Eleventh and Fourteenth streets. Commissioner Acton and General Brown combined strong forces of soldiers and police, and by midnight took the barricades. But fighting went on all night.
From her room Ellen Leonard watched the rioters still surging through Nineteenth Street and noted that her “neighborhood was wholly at the mercy of the mob … Destruction and death were on every side.” She tried to sleep “when a sudden rush and scream brought me again to my window … I distinctly heard dreadful cries and caught these broken words, ‘Oh my brothers! My brothers! Save me!’”
Not many hours afterward, on Wednesday afternoon, Ellen Leonard and her household were to play a heroic role in one of the decisive battles of the week. That morning a mob of 5,000 had been cleared from Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street by a force of U.S. artillery firing grape at point-blank range and killing scores of rioters. But the mob collected again in greater strength at Nineteenth Street and First Avenue. Colonel Cleveland Winslow, with one of the few small infantry detachments available for street-fighting, and Colonel Edward Jardine, with a battery of two howitzers, marched to meet them.
As Winslow’s men rushed forward, they were attacked from every window and rooftop by rifle fire and bricks. The infantry was cut to pieces. Winslow had to order an immediate retreat. Jardine, struck by a bullet in the leg, crumpled to the pavement.
The regimental surgeon helped Colonel Jardine and another wounded soldier escape down Nineteenth Street. Ellen saw them from her window. She rushed downstairs and begged them to take refuge in the house. The Colonel and the surgeon were hidden in the cellar, the soldier taken to the top floor where Ellen and her mother could nurse him. Ellen’s brother was sent for help, escaping over the rooftops at the rear. “Mrs. P.,” who lived downstairs, waited calmly in the sitting room.
The rioters were combing the street, house by house. “A few moments we waited in breathless silence,” Ellen wrote later. “Then came a rush up the stairs and the bell rang violently.” The mob demanded that the soldiers be given up. Mrs. P. answered them calmly. Yes, they had been here, but had escaped by the back yard. One man pointed a carbine at her head. She brushed it aside, saying, “You know I am a woman, and it might frighten me.” They threatened to burn the house down. “My only son works as you do, and perhaps in the same shop with some of you, for seventy cents a day,” she told them, omitting the fact that he had left a few weeks before to join the Union Army.
The sentinel at the stairs, younger and better dressed than the others, drew Mrs. P. aside and warned her that it was better to let them search the house. She agreed, trying to remain calm while they rushed to the cellar. They found the surgeon first and dragged him upstairs, beating him viciously. But Colonel Jardine, lying wounded on the cellar floor, insisted he was an ordinary citizen accidentally hurt in the fray.
Four men pointed muskets at his head. He told them to shoot—he would be dead soon from loss of blood anyway. But he begged them to bring a priest first. The request seemed to disconcert them. Then they left the house as suddenly as they had come, not even bothering to search the upper floors.
The women waited fearfully all that evening. Not until after midnight did they hear the welcome tramp of marching feet. Ellen’s brother had reached police headquarters, and returned with a large contingent of soldiers and police. The whole party was rescued and taken to the well-guarded St. Nicholas Hotel. Even the surgeon, they learned, had managed to escape.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, the mob attacked a government warehouse on Greenwich Street, where 20,000 muskets were stored. This cache might have given them control of the city if Acton had not learned of the plan in time and sent a large headquarters force to stop them.
It was almost dawn before the turning point arrived. The steady tramp of thousands of feet—the Tenth and Fifty-sixth regiments, New York National Guard—was heard along lower Broadway. At 4 A.M. the perfectly formed ranks of the crack Seventh Regiment wheeled up Canal Street. They were the first elements of the state militia rushed from Gettysburg. Nine more New York regiments as well as one Michigan regiment arrived in the next two days. The city was out of danger at last.
From Washington on Thursday the President announced that he was standing firm: the draft would be resumed in New York at the first practicable date. Late that morning a detachment of police broke into No. 10 East Eleventh Street and arrested John Andrews, “this howling fiend, this emissary and spy of the Rebels,” as the Tribune called him, who ironically enough was found with his Negro mistress.
The mob was to make its last stand on the East Side. Five thousand desperate men attacked elements of the Seventh Regiment on Second Avenue in what the Times labeled “the most sanguinary fight of the whole riot.” Bullets and bricks from the rooftops killed fifteen soldiers before another 700 troops arrived to clear the avenue with artillery and bayonet.
It was the decisive battle. On Friday morning, the Mayor could announce: “The riotous assemblages have been dispersed.”
On Friday, also, John Hughes, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, made an address from the balcony of his house at 36th Street and Madison Avenue. A loyal supporter of the Union, he had traveled in Europe as Lincoln’s personal agent, speaking for the Union cause in Rome, France, and Ireland. He had no love for abolitionists, but he did not like mob rule either, and on Thursday it had been announced that he would address “the men of New York who are now called in many of the papers rioters.” The wording of this proclamation disturbed the New York Times, which wondered what other term could be applied to men who had burned down public buildings, but the speech was a firm one, and it served to tamp down the last embers of revolt.
While the riots disappeared from the headlines by the end of the week, their repercussions continued. The President appointed Major General John A. Dix, former governor of New York, to the eastern command, and set August 19 as the date for the resumption of the draft. But Seymour was intractable. In letter after letter he argued with Lincoln that the city’s quotas had been unfairly set, that prejudiced officials would corrupt the drawing, that he could fill New York’s quotas immediately with volunteers. Lincoln rejected each excuse patiently but firmly. The draft was completed—but at some expense to the campaign against Lee.
“As it is quite possible we may be obliged to detach some of your troops to enforce the draft and to bring on the drafted men,” General in Chief Henry W. Halleck wired General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, on July 29, “I think it would be best to hold for the present the upper line of the Rappahannock without further pursuit of Lee.” The necessity had to be met, and Meade told Halleck on August 16, “I have sent you my best troops and some of my best officers”—almost 10,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac.
Firm as he had been with Seymour, Lincoln squashed all attempts to link the New York riots and leading Peace Democrats with Richmond. When James R. Gilmore of the New York Tribune called on Lincoln and proposed an investigation of the riot’s causes, the President refused, supposedly saying, “One rebellion at a time is about as much as we can conveniently handle.”
The ironic conclusion to the riots was the 1863 draft itself. Of 79,975 men conscripted in New York State, 54,765 were exempted on physical and other grounds, 15,912 bought their way out for $300, 6,998 furnished substitutes, and only 2,300—not many more than had been killed and wounded in the riots themselves—were added to the Union Army. In the North as a whole, in fact, the four drafts of 1863 and 1864 produced about 52,000 troops.
Yet the value of conscription could not be measured solely by the number of men drafted. Each state was given a quota at each call for troops, and officials tried to meet the quotas ahead of time by swelling their voluntary enlistments. So the threat of a draft was an invaluable asset as a constant prod. States and cities that raised more than their share of men could credit the extras to their quota at the time of the next draft.
There was a further irony in the attention focused by the riots on the $300 exemption clause. During the debates on a new draft law early in 1864, a large block of senators and congressmen opposed the exemption as “class legislation.” Lincoln himself, with an election only a few months off, joined the opposition in June, thus daring the political wrath of those in wealth and power who supported the exemption. The final bill, passed on July 4, established a new system of bounty payments in graduated amounts for one-year, two-year, and three-year volunteers.
But when the $300 exemption came to a vote, both Fernando and Ben Wood, the most frenzied opponents of the exemption as a crime against the poor, refrained from voting!
And to add to the complex irony, the War Department during the fall, 1864, draft was so intent on placating New York that 18,448 men who had enlisted in the Navy during the four preceding years were credited to the city. Thus was its quota virtually filled by paper logistics. Thus did sailors from Iowa or Michigan, who happened to have signed their Navy papers in New York, keep the specter of another draft riot from a city that had already known the worst explosion in the nation’s history.